CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- During his freshman year last season, a practice rule under his brand new head coach didn’t make any sense to Sydney Brown.
Under Illinois head coach Lovie Smith, if there’s an incomplete pass, the nearest defensive player is required to pick up the ball and simulate a return. This was crazy to Brown and he decided to do what a young player would do in this generation. He asked why.
“There’s a lot of things that we do and they don’t seem to make a lot of sense at the time and then you realize why it’s important in games,” Brown said. “Most times, you don’t have to ask why you’re doing something because Coach Smith or your position coach will tell you why.” But even when you ask why and you do it in the proper way, he's happy to tell you things."
Smith was happy to explain why picking up a loose football in practice is an important learned trait.
“Coach Smith said that you never know if a loose ball is in play or the play is dead,” Brown said. “Since you never know, you need to feel like you need to be prepared to make a play on the ball like it is a takeaway.”
Suddenly in the fourth quarter of a comeback attempt at Michigan State, it was Brown who was taking an interception back 76 yards for his first career touchdown. After doing the what and learning the why, Brown saw the validation. Welcome to Lovie Ball.
“He says all the time that the players have to take ownership in their jobs,” Brown said. “I think young people in this generation call that buying in but I think when you know the what and the why, you’re willing to play with more confidence.”
Lovie Smith, who is finally starting to see success in his fourth season at Illinois is more than happy to have a two-way conversation relationship with his players. Smith says he conducts his practices in a similar if not exact way than when he coached in the National Football League and treats his players the same way - as adults and not children.
“There’s a little of that too of doing it because we say do it but we want them to know why,” Smith said. “There’s a reason why we do everything, why we call certain things, technique-wise it’s been tried and tested. When you’re dealing with young people, most of them will do everything you’re asking them to do if they know the reason why.”
If in a positional meeting or film session, a player wishes to know why a certain technique or skill is being practiced, they don’t usually have to wait to ask. They get the why answered almost immediately.
“As a player, obviously you can’t deny your coach but when you know the why, you’ve got a better chance at a positive result,” senior defensive lineman Jamal Milan said. “I’m so thankful to be part of this year to help (Smith) turn this around because he’s such a great coach.”
When Smith arrived at Illinois, he knew that the locker room culture would need to be rebuilt. During his first few seasons, the regular-season finale week against Northwestern didn’t mark anything except the end of the season. Players would occasionally miss class, sometimes show up late for team meetings and motivation was at its lowest points with no postseason implications on the line.
“I think it was more about believing in yourself more than a culture problem,” senior tight end Caleb Reams said. “It means a lot because everyone wants to know the why and when you get that reason without it being a problem to be told it, it means our coaching staff are full of great men and great teachers. You need both. You can’t be a good teacher and a bad person.”
Illinois (6-5, 4-4 in Big Ten Conference) will honor 17 seniors, some of which were under as many as three different head coaches, who have a chance to end a regular season with a winning record for the first time since 2007.
“A lot of times, when you have a coaching change, guys leave and want to try something different,” Smith said. “As a new staff coming in, we let everyone know how we would run our program and what would be expected. The guys that stayed all got on board and saw it the same way.”
For several of these seniors like co-captain linebacker Dele Harding, who mostly weren’t recruited by Smith or his staff, the Illini fourth-year head coach is described as “a father figure” who has learned lessons well beyond the football field.
“I’ll tell you that it goes well beyond football and I feel like I can ask him about anything and he’ll always have time for me and what I’m asking him,” Harding said. “The things that are important to him seem strange at first but you realize why it is important. Whether it’s about how to prepare, why what we wear on road trips is important, why we keep the locker room as clean as possible or how to treat women or your elders. You realize now he’s preparing and teaching you habits for life.”
For Smith, this is just business as usual behavior as he understands what being a head coach is all about.
“For me, that’s what you want and honestly, if your players aren’t considering you a father figure in their lives, you’re probably doing something wrong,” Smith said. “I would hope they feel that way and I hope they know I care deeply about them.”
Brown says his head coach’s willingness to answer the why questions and not get too emotional on the sidelines is part of being addressed as young men.
“Coach Smith doesn’t use foul language, doesn’t go nuts or get too emotional on the sidelines unless it’s about defending us or going to bat for us as players,” Brown said. “Instead, sometimes if you’re having a bad practice he’ll come over to you, lean in and say ‘I’m really disappointed in you today. You can be better than this. How about you try to do better from now on?’ I can tell you that feels worse and hits home with me than a guy yelling, screaming or grabbing my facemask.”
The calm, cool nature of Smith, especially early in games, is what he calls “head coach behavior” and provides an example to his players.
“When you’ve done this as long as I have, you learn that there’s a lot of game left to be played,” Smith said. “As a head coach, you have to make your way through the highs and lows. If you do that, your players probably won’t panic and that’s leadership as I see it.”